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$10 million fire heist

• Three firefighters charged with robbing millions from Budget Supplies while responding to massive blaze • First responders under scrutiny following implications in two robberies last year

Published:Sunday | March 12, 2023 | 1:02 AMAndre Williams - Staff Reporter
Three firefighters are accused of stealing CA$90,000 from a fireproof vault at New Budget Supplies and Hardware on Hagley Park Road in St Andrew while trying to contain a massive blaze on the night of December 16 last year.
New Budget Supplies and Hardware on Hagley Park Road in St Andrew
Stewart Beckford, commissioner of the Jamaica Fire Brigade.
Robert Dabdoub, owner of New Budget Supplies and Hardware on Hagley Park Road in St Andrew, view the damage from the December 16 fire.
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Three firefighters are now before the court, accused of stealing over CA$90,000 (approximately J$10 million) from a fireproof vault while responding to a fire that gutted sections of the New Budget Supplies and Hardware on the night of December 16...

Three firefighters are now before the court, accused of stealing over CA$90,000 (approximately J$10 million) from a fireproof vault while responding to a fire that gutted sections of the New Budget Supplies and Hardware on the night of December 16 last year.

Nearly three months after the incident, the three firemen (one a district officer) attached to the Rollington Town Fire Station in St Andrew were charged with larceny and have been suspended from duties pending the outcome of the case.

The estimated loss from the inferno at the Hagley Park Road, St Andrew business was approximately $700 million. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

In another robbery incident last year involving first responders attached to the Jamaica Fire Brigade (JFB), three emergency medical technicians (EMT) from the Lucea Fire Station in Hanover were accused of stealing personal property from the home of an elderly person after they responded to a call for emergency medical assistance. According to reports, the senior citizen was pronounced dead at hospital, following which the men returned to the house and stole money and jewellery.

A senior member of the JFB told The Sunday Gleaner that he was quite disturbed by these alleged incidents, as they bring disrepute to the fire brigade.

“In the Lucea case, an ambulance responded to an incident and went to the person’s house. The men took the person to hospital, and apparently when they realised the person was deceased, they reportedly went back to the house and took out some stuff out the house, like money and jewellery. The camera picked them up,” the senior firefighter, who requested anonymity, shared.

In that incident, the men were placed on no-pay suspension, but no charges were laid following investigations. Two of the EMTs, who are firefighters with specialised training, have since resigned.

“Things like these make the good men who are serving also come under scrutiny,” said the annoyed veteran.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA

On the night of December 16 in the busy Christmas season last year, 56 firefighters were deployed to extinguish the blaze that had engulfed New Budget Supplies and Hardware. It was an all night operation that took the first responders into the following morning to contain the fire.

Sometime during the chaos, operators of the hardware store discovered that a fireproof vault inside the building was broken into and CA$90,000 was missing. The police, who were already on the scene, were alerted.

Surveillance footage reportedly showed the accused in the vicinity of the vault during the cooling-down phase of the operation. They were questioned and searched on location. Their homes were also searched as part of the investigation.

Last month, the three firefighters were arrested and charged.

“The three were charged for simple larceny. A large sum of Canadian dollars would have been taken. They are currently before the court. They were charged, given bail and I think their next court date is the 27th of this month (March) in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court,” Senior Superintendent of Police Kirk Ricketts, commander for the St Andrew South division, told The Sunday Gleaner last week.

“The monies were in an envelope in a fireproof safe. During the cooling-down process, allegations are that they would have broken into the safe and stole the money and as such the investigations led to the arrest of these individuals.”

Stewart Beckford, commissioner of the JFB, told The Sunday Gleaner that he was not at liberty to discuss the Budget Supplies incident, because it was now a legal matter, but he confirmed that a report was made to the police alleging that funds were missing by the owner of the property, Robert Dabdoub.

“I am not aware of the amount; that was never said to me. What was said to me is that it is alleged that a sum of money was missing and the police would have conducted their investigation and would have determined that three firefighters may be responsible for the removal of the funds,” he said, noting that he has not had dialogue with Dabdoub about the incident.

Law firm Dabdoub, Dabdoub & Co, who is representing Budget Supplies, told The Sunday Gleaner that they await further instructions from their client as the case proceeds.

Regarding the Lucea matter, the JFB boss said, “I am aware of the matter, allegations were made, but the police have not made any arrest in the matter. Why, I am not sure. I suppose it is whether or not they have found sufficient evidence.”

He continued, “What I do know is that a member of the team would have resigned, who it was alleged may have been involved in actions that would probably be tantamount to a breach of the regulations. That person, I am told, resigned because they migrated. Another member of the team, whom allegations were made against as well, is actually overseas. I am almost certain that he may be on suspension because when allegations are made, in order to investigate we would suspend the member.”

Questioned about the outcome of that investigation, Superintendent Sharon Beeput, commander of the Hanover Police division, said she was not certain of the details of the case but promised to look into it. However, a source told The Sunday Gleaner that those implicated had reportedly returned the stolen items and criminal charges were never laid.

A VERY DISCIPLINED ORGANISATION

Commissioner Beckford said that he operates a very disciplined organisation, and when members fall out of line, disciplinary action is taken, which includes a hearing into the matter and suspension with half pay or no pay.

Once a determination is made and a member is discharged, they have the option to appeal to the board.

“If the board refuses their appeal, the next place they have to go is the Court of Appeal. That’s how serious the disciplinary procedure is in the JFB. We are a paramilitary organisation; we take discipline very seriously,” Beckford said.

Once the matter becomes a criminal offence, he said “the Fire Brigade Act is clear when it comes to matters of this nature where persons have been criminally charged. They are suspended.”

Beckford said incidents of this nature were rare within the fire brigade, noting that during his four-and-half-year tenure, this was the second time members were facing criminal charges.

“So it’s not a problem in the JFB in terms of members being involved in any wrongdoing but, of course, you will have the occasional instances like what is being alleged here, with what took place at Budget,” Beckford said.

The commissioner said the JFB prides itself on honing a disciplined team, but part of the problem they face is that recruits often come from troubled communities.

“A lot of these persons are from communities that are exposed to violence and so on and it is easy sometimes for persons to get tempted into illegal or illicit activities,” Beckford said.

“But many of our members keep themselves out of trouble, which is a testament to their commitment and the fact that we have a rigid disciplinary system in the fire brigade where a member can lose his or her job if they commit a breach that a tribunal considers so serious that it would have brought discredit to the JFB, without having to go through any court.”

IMPACT ON OPERATIONS

The departure of the EMTs in the Lucea incident has impacted the operations of the fire brigade in the western end of Jamaica because of a shortage of such specially trained technicians.

“Three persons ride the ambulance and if two from one team is out then that is going to pose a challenge. It is not easy to find persons to quickly replace them because these are trained medical practitioners. They are EMTs, so you just can’t take up a regular firefighter to say go fill in for John Brown because he is out. You have to have trained individuals,” Beckford said.

“We had a situation where there were a couple of shifts on separate days that we were not able to find a crew to man the ambulance but we have since transferred personnel down into Lucea who are now lending support.”

andre.williams@gleanerjm.com